‘Living-in’ at the Public Library

Detail from the entrance to the former Pitfield Street library in Hoxton, showing the inscription to library benefactor  John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911). In the 1890s, Edwards contributed buildings, books and money towards the development of  a public library provision in Shoreditch in east London.  He also supported numerous other library projects across east London and in his native West Country.
‘Through the medium of W.C.Plant, Chief Librarian…[John Passmore Edwards] most generously handed over to the Shoreditch Library Commissioners the sum of £4,250 being the whole amount paid by them for the purchase of the Library Buildings, Librarian’s House and large plot of Ground adjoining.’ (1) This detail, from the entrance to the former Pitfield Street library in Hoxton, shows an inscription to Edwards (1823-1911) who financed numerous library projects across east London and in his native West Country. Photograph Michelle Johansen, December 2013

Most of London’s rate-assisted or free libraries were constructed during a relatively lively period of expansion between c.1888 and c.1905.(2) Each new institution was announced with great fanfare, in the form of a well-attended opening ceremony. Local media coverage of these celebratory public events was extensive. Alongside detailed descriptions of the library building itself, journalists sometimes included a reference to the size or character of the library flat or apartment. Likewise, when documenting the appointment of a new chief or head librarian, library committee minutes from the period might mention that the salary was ‘inclusive of’ residence, rates, fuel and light.(3) Or administrative records might otherwise pass incidental remark upon the librarian’s flat or house, as in the extract from the 1892 note ‘To the Press’ printed under the photograph above. It was small clues of this type that first alerted me to the intriguing phenomenon of ‘living-in’. Curious to discover more about the practice, I turned to the floor plans of new free libraries printed in specialist contemporary journals such as the Library or the Builder. Here I found concrete and conclusive proof that accommodation for the librarian frequently formed an integral part of the new build.

Library diagrams and drawings also yielded valuable data on dimension and layout. Published in 1889, the floor plans of the new Battersea Library in south London indicated that the librarian’s apartments were spread across three floors and included a dining room and a drawing room, as well as separate larder and pantry areas.(4) The floor plans of Clapham Library, also in south London, show that the library was constructed upon an 8,000-square-foot site; and almost the whole of the second floor of the building was given over to the librarian’s residence.(5) At Edmonton Library in north London, the librarian’s apartment was spread across two floors, with ‘a separate entrance…provided for him at the end of the news-room.’(6) At the new building at St Martin-in-the-Fields in the West End of London, it was reported that ‘the top floor is to be fitted as a residence for the librarian.’(7). Armed with these ephemeral scraps of evidence, I was able to state with confidence that some metropolitan public librarians started their careers living above or alongside their library premises. But was it possible to comment more precisely on numbers and locations?  Was it realistic to try to ascertain how widespread was the practice of ‘living-in’ in London’s libraries c.1900?

The former Shoreditch Public Library on Kingsland Road in east London. Chief Librarian William Plant 'lived-in' blah in the 1890s
The former Shoreditch Public Library on Kingsland Road in east London. Chief Librarian William Plant (1858-1929) occupied a purpose-built apartment adjoining the building from the moment of his appointment in 1892. Photograph Michelle Johansen, July 2013

To answer this question, I paid close attention to the table of data gathered by the Borough clerk in West Ham in east London around 1906. The clerk’s managers had requested guidance on appropriate salary levels for their library employees so – in an early version of comparator analysis – the clerk had circulated a survey to chief librarians across the Greater London boroughs, asking for information on salary levels and other minutiae of library administration. The more precise respondents were careful to point out where salary figures in their region had been modified by the issue of residency. In other words, they stated the amount their librarians received alongside such invaluable qualifications as with house, fuel and light or with house, coal and light or with apartments, &c.(8) These qualifications made it possible to specify which London library buildings included accommodation for the chief or sub-librarian around 1906 – up to a point.

Spa Road Library_8
The entrance to the chief librarian’s residence (white door) is clearly visible to the left of the main library entrance (green doors) in this contemporary photograph of the former Spa Road library in Bermondsey. John Frowde (1856 -1924) lived here with his family from the moment of his appointment as chief librarian in 1891. On 23 January 1892, the ‘South London Press’ published an article on the Spa Road building, which mentioned Frowde’s accommodation: ‘The whole of the second floor is exclusively occupied by the librarian’s apartments, forming a complete residence, with baths, larders, stores, coal lift, and every residential convenience.’ Little wonder Frowde was reluctant to move out of the library apartment following his retirement as chief librarian in 1922; his governors granted him special leave to remain in the flat until he had found suitable accommodation elsewhere. Photograph Michelle Johansen, November 2013

The problem is that not every London public library was represented in the West Ham survey findings and not all library residencies were explicitly announced in the table of returns; that is, while some respondents took the trouble to mention residency, others did not. Allowing for inconsistencies in the West Ham data – and mapping the findings from this source onto my discoveries elsewhere in local studies archives across the city – I have been able to establish that, of the 30 or so main library buildings in London c.1906, at least 20 were managed by a chief librarian who lived over or alongside the library premises. Of the 50 or so smaller branch libraries, at least 20 were run by a resident sub-librarian. To provide an idea of the geographical spread of the phenomenon of ‘living-in’, it is worth pointing out that librarians occupied accommodation in libraries from Shoreditch, Whitechapel, West Ham, Limehouse, Poplar, and Leyton in the east, to Fulham, Chiswick, Chelsea, Hammersmith, Paddington, Ealing and Richmond in the west; and from Southwark, Lambeth, Camberwell, Woolwich, Bermondsey and Battersea in the south, to Harlesden, Willesden Green, Walthamstow, Kilburn and Stoke Newington in the north.

Inevitably, each of these 40+ librarians experienced a different version of ‘living-in’. Some occupied purpose-built accommodation in new library premises while others were given converted rooms in existing buildings; but it appeared that all enjoyed a relatively deluxe domestic experience. ‘Relatively’ in three senses. First, their library flats were spacious and well-equipped, compared to the type of dwellings they might realistically have been able to rent on the open property market: even senior public library posts in London only came with a salary of between £120 and £220 in the 1890s. Second, the library buildings they occupied were grand in architectural terms, relative to the surrounding built environment. This was especially the case in areas such as Limehouse, Shoreditch and Bermondsey. Third, in lifestyle terms, occupying well-appointed apartments with easy access to the beautifully-designed and fitted-out learning institutions they managed represented a giant step forwards, or upwards, for a cohort of subaltern professionals from relatively modest or humble social backgrounds. The typical Victorian chief librarian was the ‘bookish’ self-educated son of a working class or artisan father. As an aside, it is interesting to note that all chief librarians in London at this time were men.  

Describing the plans for a public library in Chelsea in west London in 1889, the writer of a Library journal article pointed out that the architect’s designs for the building included: ‘a commodious and handsome residence for the librarian.’(9) It appeared that the designers of London’s late-Victorian public library buildings – many of which were prestige or flagship constructions, bearing the name of their benefactor in elaborately worked scrolls or tablets over the main entrance (see the Pitfield Street example at the top of this post) – had been generous in apportioning space to the residential librarian. Perhaps too generous. By 1907, the author of an instruction manual aimed at library architects was advising a more economical approach: ‘where…the architect has to include accommodation for a librarian he should avoid making this unnecessarily commodious, and should not provide more than five or at most six rooms in addition to bathroom, closet, and the necessary offices.’(10) For many among the first generation of chief librarians in London, this recommendation arrived too late to disrupt their comfortable inhabitant arrangements. Although the convention of providing a flat for the librarian as part of a new library building programme had been quietly shelved by the First World War, this set of librarians remained very much at home in their ‘unnecessarily commodious’ accommodation right up to the time of their (often unwilling) retirement in the 1920s.

(1) ‘To the Press’ circulated by the Shoreditch Library Commissioners, 30 November 1892 Out Letters from the Chief Librarian, 1891-1894, Hackney Local Studies Archive

(2) This post uses up some of the scraps leftover from a chapter contributed to a book on residential institutions in Britain, published in June 2013. I gave a talk on the subject at a conference in 2010. My research into the neglected phenomenon of ‘living-in’ remains an ongoing project so all insights into the subject (including anecdotes and suggested corrections to the text) are welcome in the comments section below.

(3) 2 October 1889, ‘Commissioners of Public Libraries and Museums of the Parish of St Giles: Minutes 1888-1898’, Volume 1, 1888-1893, Southwark Archive 2775-7

(4) The Library, First Series, Vol.I, 1889, pp.141-2

(5) F.J.Burgoyne, ‘Library Construction. Architecture, Fittings and Furniture,’ (London, 1897) in Richard Garnett (ed.), The Library Series (London 1897-99), pp.204-5

(6) As (5), pp.211-12

(7) The Library, First Series, Vol.I, 1889, p.211

(8) ‘Tabulation of returns obtained by the town clerk as to the salaries &c. of librarians in Greater London,’ London County Borough of West Ham, 1906 (facsimile copy held in London Collection, Bishopsgate Institute & Archive)

(9) The Library, First Series, Vol.I, 1889, pp.274-5

(10) My italics. Amian L. Champneys, Public Libraries. A Treatise on their Design, Construction and Fittings (London, 1907), pp.110-1; see also Walter A. Briscoe, Library Planning (London, 1927)


Speed History – and the 1893 Shoreditch Public Library Opening Ceremony

Inspired by the concept of speed dating, writer Alan Gilbey is pioneering a ‘speed history’ approach to retelling London’s past. In unusual and atmospheric East London locations, historians, writers and actors share stories of local characters or incidents with small audience groups, often using props and costumes to add drama or an element of surprise to proceedings. Every five minutes, Alan rings his bell and the audiences move on to hear another tale told. Across three nights in April and May, this innovative approach to public history is taking place in and around Bishopsgate Institute’s historic library. As part of the Bishopsgate event, I tell the story of the so-called ‘Battle of the Books’, a bitter dispute that split the public library world in the 1890s.

This is the second time I’ve been involved in speed history with Alan. During the ‘East End Back Passages’ walking tour around Shoreditch in December 2012, my story used the experience of chief librarian William Plant of Shoreditch Public Library as a way in to a wider narrative of learning, class and culture in Victorian Britain, taking in silver trowels, streams of bunting and a trip to Monte Carlo on the way. I’m posting my five-minute Shoreditch story, together with a photograph of Plant with his friends and colleagues in the Society of Public Librarians (1895-1930). The photograph was taken during a society summer outing to Kent in 1922 and is reproduced with kind permission of the Bishopsgate Institute and Archive. With public library provision especially vulnerable in a climate of spending cuts, the true story of the Shoreditch Library opening ceremony assumes a particular poignancy and significance. Read the story – and the next time you find yourself alongside one of London’s Victorian public library buildings, pause for a moment to re-imagine the scenes around the time ‘your’ library first opened to the public…brightly-coloured streamers and bunting…brass band music…large crowds of cheering men, women and children…and a shared sense of progress and optimism.

The Shoreditch Public Library 

In 1850 the Libraries Act was passed. It allowed local governments (at that time known as vestries) to use money from the rates (or local taxes) to fund the building of public libraries, free at the point of use, where all might have ready access to newspapers, books and informal learning. London was notoriously slow responding to the Act: some thirty years after it had been passed just two rate-assisted libraries had been built, in Westminster and in Wandsworth. For a variety of reasons (including the 1870 Education Act and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 1887) the late-1880s and 1890s witnessed a boom in library building programmes across the capital and by 1914 there were more than one hundred main and branch library buildings in London. There was an air of novelty, excitement and anticipation surrounding these new so-called ‘universities of the people’ and one way to get a sense of this is by describing the fanfare or ‘ta-dah!’ of the public library opening ceremony when thousands of local people would come out onto the streets to celebrate each new library launch. Library buildings and nearby trees and railings would be festooned with flags, banners and bunting. Brass bands played jolly tunes before and after the ceremony – often performing at the head of a procession of the local ‘Great and the Good’ as they paraded from the Town Hall to the Library to launch the proceedings in grand style.

The Shoreditch Library Opening celebration was scheduled for May 1893. Eager to book a big-name guest, the new chief librarian William Plant (below, top left) invited the Prime Minister William Gladstone to officiate on the platform. His approach was unsuccessful. Finally, Plant wrote to John Passmore Edwards, a self-made publisher and keen supporter of the library movement. Edwards had financed a number of public library projects in the East End, including at Shoreditch where he had paid the full construction costs of the library premises. Edwards had also officiated at dozens of library opening ceremonies – later in the 1890s he was to open not one but two library buildings in East London in a single day – but he was unable to take the platform at Shoreditch. Instead he proposed a politician friend, the Duke of Devonshire.

On the one hand, then, we have William Plant living and working in a free library located on the obscure fringes of the notorious East End. Surrounded by builders’ rubble, he regularly worked on late into the evening to prepare the library for public use. He fretted over the gilding of the words ‘Shoreditch Public Library’ on the front of the building; he bartered with booksellers ton gain the best price for books for the shelves; he oversaw repairs to the joints in the hot water pipes; he grew anxious about delays to the laying of a new cork carpet; and he expressed concerns about the efficiency of the monogrammed mat purchased for the library entrance. On the other hand, we see the Duke of Devonshire moving from one smart location to another. His staff remained in touch with Plant, issuing peremptory updates on the arrangements for the Shoreditch opening ceremony: his Grace had just left for Monte Carlo; his Grace was enjoying a day at the Races; no, his Grace wasn’t yet able to confirm a date for the ceremony; and so on.

The Duke of Devonshire’s half-hearted engagement with the Shoreditch opening ceremony indicated the ‘Cinderella status’ of the rate-assisted library in the eyes of those who moved in more elevated circles. At the same time, Plant’s grand aspirations for his opening ceremony reminded us that, at grass-roots level, the new free libraries were perceived altogether differently. Before the advent of the rate-assisted library, only those men and women with a disposable income or respectable social connections and/or a stable home address were able to access London’s various circulating and subscription libraries, university and church libraries and large reading rooms – of which the British Museum was probably the best known. Yet even the cheapest reading matter (down to and often including the daily papers) might lie beyond the financial reach of ‘ordinary’ people. So how would the self-improving domestic servant, the out-of-work bricklayer, the impoverished pupil-teacher, the itinerant labourer or the down-at-heel office clerk access books or learning in late-Victorian?

The public library was a truly egalitarian innovation – part of a broader movement aimed at widening access to ‘rational recreation’. Rather than spending their leisure hours in the pub, on the street corner or at the Music Hall, working-class men and women might use their weekends to promenade or perambulate in new public parks. Equally, they might spend their evenings reading or studying in ‘lighthouses of learning’ or ‘temples of light’ as the new public libraries were variously termed. Library user statistics from the period prove that there was a real demand for opportunities for self-acculturation among the urban working and lower-middle classes. By 1914, the city’s 100+ rate-assisted libraries stood at the unofficial heart of local cultural and intellectual life, circulating millions of books annually to hundreds of thousands of readers, as well as getting up popular lecture series’ and reading circles. Little wonder, then, that the new free libraries were known as the ‘universities of the people.’